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A Shudder of the Soul

Cronos makes something new from old-fashioned horror

Gris pries the device off in pain and fear. Aurora, his small granddaughter, watches in silent terror and, in a striking echo of The Piano (if mute characters can be said to "echo"), remains silent, except for one mournful "Grandfather," for the rest of the film.

Gris looks too sensible and content to want to extend his life unnaturally, but the bug has already struck. In the film's central irony, he gets the medicine that de la Guardia is so desperate for. By temper-ament, Gris would likely agree with Angel's assessment of his uncle -- "all he does is shit and piss all day and he wants to live forever!" -- but now he's got the craving. The bite makes him itch like a madman, and gives him a thirst that only blood can satisfy. Yes, we're suddenly in vampire territory.

It's a tribute to the strength of del Toro's narration that this shift doesn't feel clumsy. And because we meet Gris in his pre-monster condition as kindly grandfather, the fact that he now craves blood is strangely touching, rather than horrifying. Del Toro has good fun with the contrast between Gris' pre- and post-bug life. At an elegant New Year's Eve party, for example, the tuxedoed Gris lies down on a marble bathroom floor to lick up the droppings from a nosebleed.

I've called Cronos old-fashioned, but it's also contemporary in all the right ways. Del Toro and Luppi spare us the cliches about Gris' revulsion at drinking blood, or at the bad form he shows on the bathroom floor. He's simply hooked, with no need for recrimination.

Del Toro also serves up plenty of the dark humor that the American horror classics of the '30s thrived on. As Tito the mortician, Daniel Gimenez Cacho has a spectacular five minutes. Accompanied by a salsa tune, he preens as he prepares a corpse for its final viewing -- "You have to be a fucking artist," he declares. Perlman also has some funny moments as the film's updated version of Igor. His uncle wants immortality; he'd just like a nose job.

Del Toro also shows a sure, light touch in his treatment of grandfather and granddaughter. When her abuelo shows up looking like the walking corpse that he is, Aurora (a cute name for a vampire's descendant) doesn't even blink. Young Tamara Shanath's performance is totally dependent on the depth in her eyes and the expressiveness of her body language, and those do everything to convince us of how much she loves her grandfather.

And Gris has a line that has both humor and mythic weight when, as the unintentionally undead one, he says his name with considerable gravity: "I am Jesus... Gris," I am the Gray Jesus, as if it were more a statement of his condition than a simple name.

That's not to say that Cronos never wobbles. Del Toro is considerably better on atmospherics and characterization than he is on story. In the film's climactic scenes, when de la Guardia and Gris wrangle over the fate of the immortality machine, he isn't altogether clear on everyone's motivations. But that's a minor flaw in the most pleasing film I've seen this year.

Cronos.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro. With Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook and Tamara Shanath.

Not rated.
92 minutes.

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